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The most popular grapes for your glass of wine

By Richard at Great Grog

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If you reach for a glass of Sauvignon Blanc tonight you will not be alone.

The majority of glasses of wine that will be drunk tonight in the UK will be from that grape variety. We seem to have a love affair with its grassy, crisp and light character.

It has grown in popularity massively since its relatively humble beginnings in the Loire valley in France.

Forty years ago there was only Sancerre and Pouilly Fume with a smattering of Touraine Sauvignon planted in France. Then came New Zealand in the mid 1970s and the world of Sauvignon Blanc exploded – 60 per cent of all New Zealand’s vineyards are made up of Sauvignon Blanc.

Weirdly though, despite the British love affair with Sauvignon Blanc, it still only ranks as eighth in world total plantings. The most commonly planted grape variety in the world is Kyoho.

The reason you probably haven’t come across Kyoho is that it is an eating grape predominantly planted in China. In fact, 90 per cent of the world’s planting is in that country, although its origins are in Japan where the “giant mountain grape,” as it translates as, was first bred in the 1930s.

The Kyoho grapes are the size of small plums and need to be peeled before eating.

Kyoto grapes are grown for eating rather than wine-making.
Kyoto grapes are grown for eating rather than wine-making.

There are more than 10,000 grape varieties in the world that can be made into decent wine. This huge diversity isn’t reflected in the planted area though. One-third of all grape vines are made up of the top 10 varieties, topped by Cabernet Sauvignon.

Cabernet is top because of America’s love affair with it. Merlot comes in second, Tempranillo is third (think Rioja), Airen is fourth (most white wine in Spain is made from this) and the famous Chardonnay only comes in fifth. Chardonnay may well be very out of fashion but someone is drinking it, in pretty big volumes too (maybe unawares, as quite a lot is blended with another grape).

Syrah (synonym Shiraz) is sixth most planted, due to huge areas in Australia. Big, tasty and spicy in character, what’s not to like? We then have Grenache, closely followed the aforementioned Sauvignon.

Pinot Noir is surprisingly plentiful in supply too, maybe because there is piles of it planted in Romania and Hungary. The bottom of the top 10 is Trebbiano (cheap ’n’ cheery Italian), not the tastiest grape, I’m afraid, more of a filler of carafes in “reasonably priced Italian restaurants”.

One grape that is conspicuous by its absence from the top 10 is the ubiquitous Pinot Grigio. How can this be if we drink so much of it? Could it be that Trebianno is slipping into the odd bottle of our favourite PG? God forbid!

On a slightly more serious note, the huge diversity of grape varieties could well be a blessing as climates change around the world in our favourite wine-producing areas. It means that we won’t be totally reliant on one or two strains of plant (think bananas and coffee, for instance).

I’ll raise a glass to that – but not a glass made from Kyoto, fortunately, although it may well be made from Trebbiano...

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